How To Be a Stylist in 4 Simple Steps With Iris Apfel

Iris hero

The irrepressible Iris Apfel. Irreverent and inspiring. Here are four lessons we can take away from this nonagenarian taste-maker to help decorate our home.

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Style icon. Collector extraordinaire. Geriatric starlet. Iris Apfel is an inspiration. Famed for her chunky baubles, eclectic ensembles, and “unsugared truths”*, this ninety-three-year-old fashionista is more than a little fabulous.

An acclaimed interior designer sought out by New York’s upper echelons, Iris worked for no less than nine presidents in her time. Her personal clothing and jewellery collections have exhibited globally, challenging contemporary notions of taste through their collision of couture, cultures and kitsch.

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Mix your patterns for bold juxtaposition. From L to R: No Reception Cushion, Ikebana Night Cushion, Ikebana Day Cushion, Line Drawing Breakfast Cushion and Cubes Cushion from One Duck Two, available online at Zanui.

Most recently, Apfel has been the face of Kate Spade and jewellery designer Alexis Bittar’s 2015 spring collection. And she’s the subject of the late Albert Maysles’ (of Grey Gardens fame) final documentary.

Her energy is astounding. Her wit is razor sharp, and her no-nonsense approach to life is refreshing. Here are four lessons we can learn from her when it comes to styling our home.

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Left, with Victoria Secret model Karlie Kloss for a Kate Spade campaign ( and right, exuding elegance (

You are the arbiter of taste

The only daughter of a mirror merchant and a fashion boutique owner, Iris grew up with both business acumen and intrinsic style. Shopping in Bloomingdales as a young woman, the owner called her aside. “I’ve been watching you,” she said. “You’re not pretty. You’re never going to be pretty. But you’ve got something better. You’ve got style.”

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Be daring with colour. From L to R: Sunset Canvas Print, Field of Dreams Canvas Print, Indigo Deer Canvas Print, Dream Catcher Canvas Print, and Circles Canvas Print from Urban Road, available online at Zanui.

Iris isn’t a fan of pretty. She draws together disparate pieces for dynamic results. For her, there are no rules – it’s all gut. She is her own gauge as to whether something works.

The lesson: Trust yourself. Cultivate your unique vision and style. If you like it, it works. And don’t apologise. 😉
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Modelling solo and with Alexis Bittar. Images sourced L to R:, and

Be hungry but picky

Iris is hailed as a “rare bird of fashion”, but she sees herself as something more of a magpie. She’s a familiar figure on the streets of her hometown New York, dressed in her trademark owlish glasses, sifting through fabrics and trying on costume jewellery.

She’s fascinated with history, and she takes the task of curating her collection seriously, searching out pieces that speak to her in thrift shops and markets, designer collections, and on her travels. Her wardrobe is a treasure trove of traditional African textiles, vintage Gucci and more.

The lesson: Feed your curiosity. Invest time in discovering what you love. Enjoy the exploration. “The best part is getting ready for the party, not attending it,” as Iris says.
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Play more

At the age of 27, Iris met and married Carl Apfel, who was to be the love of her life. “He was cool, cuddly and he cooked Chinese food – I figured I couldn’t do any better,” she says in Maysles’ doco.

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Introduce contrasting textures. From L to R: Gem Cushion, Confetti Breakfast Cushion, Flinders Breakfast Cushion, Leopard Faux Fur Cushion, and Stripe Faux Fur Cushion from Bambury, available online at Zanui.

The couple’s home at One Kings Lane in New York is like a theme park for adults. It’s packed full of priceless and peculiar pieces, with kitsch and couture residing side by side.

“They keep the Christmas lights on for six to eight months,” fashion photographer Bruce Weber says, “so it’s kind of always Christmas there. It’s the most perfect house for two children.”

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Iris and Carl – true love. Images sourced L to R: and

This love of play is perhaps Iris’s secret. She invokes a sense of spectacle in everything she does. Fantasy and glamour come together in her choice of outfits, her interior design and her approach to life.

The lesson: Be irreverent. Let go the reins. Surrender to “glamour, fantasy, humour, whimsy,” Iris advises.
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As covergirl. Image sourced:

Colour will rescue you

It’s easy to feel intimated by colour. How much is too much? Will it contrast or will it just clash? But, “Colour is so important,” as Iris says. “Colour can raise the dead.”

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Merge cultural references. From L to R: Barsine Handmade Round Ottoman, Artaxe Handmade Footed Square Ottoman, Zand Handmade Round Ottoman, Otanes Handmade Square Ottoman, and Hadassah Handmade Round Ottoman from Rug Culture, available online at Zanui.

Iris studied art and art history, yet her distinctive style is much more than a studied approach to colour and lines – it’s fun. It’s a trip all its own. Bold and outlandish hues take centre stage.

The lesson: Defy expectation. Change it up. As Iris says, “If you’re not going to change, you might as well jump into the box yourself.”
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Iris is the evocation of the expression “Eat life”. Her vitality is positively infectious. She believes in giving imagination free reign, and in relishing the moment. These days Iris splits her time between modelling, giving comments, attending fashion industry events, teaching and generally redefining beauty. The couple celebrated Carl’s 100th birthday in 2014 and 68 years of marriage before Carl passed away in August this year.

“We just like to have fun,” Iris says. “I think there’s a difference between being childish and keeping a quality that’s childlike. I’m very grown up in a lot of ways, but I think that’s so sad – it’s good to maintain a sense of wonder.”

They had been inseparable. What a testament to true love. Carpe diem, precious ones. Seize. The. Day.

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*Quote from The Guardian.

Where uncredited, quotes are from Maysles’ documentary.

Kay is a feature, blog and copywriter. She collects empty jam jars, academic degrees and tawdry dreams in the hopes of turning them into something useful someday. Her work has been published in ACP magazines, ABC fiction, Overland, Brittle Star, Seizure, trade publications and online forums. Her creative writing has won several awards.